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Iraqi Weapons Expert Insists Search Is Futile
Published on Wednesday, June 4, 2003 by the Los Angeles Times
Iraqi Weapons Expert Insists Search Is Futile
As a new hunt for banned arms begins, a military scientist says the chemical agents he helped develop have been gone for years
by Bob Drogin
 

BAGHDAD — After three decades as one of Saddam Hussein's chief chemical warriors, Iraqi Brig. Gen. Alaa Saeed picks nervously at the kebabs on his plate as he talks about the deadly nerve gases and blister agents he once produced.


The failure to locate weapons of mass destruction has become a controversial issue for the Bush administration, with several influential lawmakers saying they believe the White House either exaggerated the threat or was misled by the intelligence community.

His hands shake visibly as he describes his last terrifying meeting with Hussein, even though it was more than five years ago. He worries about his culpability for the sweeping documents he wrote declaring to the United Nations that Iraq was free of banned weapons. And thoughts of the price he may pay for his deeds haunt him.

"My future is dark," he says, dropping his voice to a furtive whisper as a waiter passes the table. "I don't know what will happen."

His once-feared boss, Gen. Hussam Mohammed Amin, is now one of five top Iraqi weapons officials known to be in U.S. custody for potential war crimes. A team from Britain's MI-6 intelligence agency grilled Saeed last week. As a new, intensive hunt for weapons gets underway after more than two months of fruitless U.S. Army searches, a U.S. intelligence team has ordered him to appear for questioning Thursday.

Saeed, perhaps the most senior weapons scientist to speak to a reporter since the war, says he would gladly accept a $200,000 reward U.S. officials here have quietly offered to anyone who can lead them to the poison gases, germ weapons and other illegal weapons that President Bush repeatedly insisted were secretly deployed in prewar Iraq.

But Saeed said he cannot take them to what he insists no longer exists.

"Their questions are the same as yours," he said. " 'Do you know of any documents or inventory of chemical agents? Any stockpiles? Any production programs? Any filled munitions? Do you have any idea where these weapons are?' I am ready to give them all the information I have. But the answer is always the same: 'No, no, no.'

"I tell them there are no hidden chemical or biological weapons," he said. "Maybe there is some other group, like the SSO [Hussein's ruthless Special Security Organization] or the Mukhabarat [the Gestapo-like intelligence agency], who have done it. I don't know. That is not my responsibility."

A U.S. intelligence official in Washington said Tuesday that senior Iraqis in custody have provided little useful information.

Limited Knowledge?

"The high-level folks are stiffing their interrogators," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Those who are talking are sticking to the regime party line. "They say: 'We don't know anything about WMD, don't know anything about war crimes, don't know anything about POWs. Saddam? I hardly knew the man.' "

The official said U.S. interrogators are getting information from lower-level Iraqis that is "more valuable."

Saeed insists that the combined blitz of allied bombing and intense U.N. inspections in the 1990s effectively destroyed Hussein's chemical, biological and nuclear programs. U.N. sanctions, he said, stopped Baghdad from importing the raw materials, equipment and spare parts needed to secretly reconstitute the illegal programs, even after U.N. inspectors left the country in 1998.

"I think, maybe, [Hussein] wanted to rebuild the CW and BW [chemical and biological weapons] programs when sanctions were lifted," Saeed said.

Why, then, didn't the Iraqi ruler help the U.N. resolve hundreds of unanswered questions about banned weapons?

"I don't know," Saeed replied. "Maybe he is too proud."

Saeed said he believed that had he consented to an interview by U.N. inspectors last winter outside Iraq, his wife and three children, perhaps his six brothers, would have been killed.

U.N. inspectors who worked with Saeed for a decade confirmed his identity and role. They cautioned that the story he tells today is consistent with what he told the U.N. after 1995: that all chemical bulk agents and munitions, as well as many key records and reports, were destroyed by 1994.

"We still don't know if that is true," said a U.N. official in New York.

Although Bush last week hailed the discovery of two tractor-trailer rigs filled with laboratory equipment as proof of illegal Iraqi weapons, other U.S. military officials here and in Washington now acknowledge that the initial weapons hunt in Iraq largely failed, a victim of faulty intelligence, poor planning, inadequate support and outsized expectations.

The failure to locate weapons of mass destruction has become a controversial issue for the Bush administration, with several influential lawmakers saying they believe the White House either exaggerated the threat or was misled by the intelligence community.

And in Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair's argument for ousting Hussein hinged on the existence of such weapons, a parliamentary committee announced Tuesday that it would investigate the decision to wage war.

Members of the initial weapons-inspection teams in Iraq, part of the 75th Exploitation Task Force, have now begun leaving the country. They are being replaced this weekend by an expanded interagency effort, called the Iraq Survey Group, with a broader mandate.

Rather than simply searching sites, the new mission will seek out intelligence. In addition to analyzing documents for clues, they will interrogate scientists, factory workers, truck drivers and anyone else who might lead them to a hidden stash.

New Search Begins

The effort has already begun. Over the last two weeks, U.S. and British teams have quietly begun interviewing scores of Iraqi scientists, engineers, technicians and others at their homes, their offices and other sites.

On Monday, for example, about 20 neatly dressed Iraqis gathered outside a six-story, dun-colored building to swap rumors and wait their turn in an interrogation room off the marble lobby inside.

An American in jeans with a holstered pistol, who declined to identify himself or his agency, ordered a Times reporter to leave the building. Soon after, half a dozen men in civilian clothes emerged without comment and left in a U.S. military convoy.

Several Iraqis said the Americans interviewed three biological scientists Sunday and one Monday. They said the Americans asked senior scientists and officials from Hussein's chemical weapons and missile production programs to return later this week.

"They ask the same questions every day," said Dr. Mahmoud Dagher, the last director of Iraq's Military Industrialization Company, which supervised a vast network of factories and companies responsible for most of Iraq's weapons production and procurement.

"I told them we gave them everything and nothing was kept," he said. He said he too had turned down the $200,000 offer. "The money is nothing. The truth is the truth."

Saeed arguably knows more than any other Iraqi about Hussein's former chemical weapons programs.

He is a short, wiry man with an easy smile and a thinning thatch of white hair above gold-rimmed aviator glasses. His English — he earned his doctorate in analytic chemistry from the University of Sussex in Britain in 1988 — is as impeccable as his manners.

He graduated in 1972 from the University of Baghdad with a degree in chemistry and joined the army's newly formed chemical corps. He joined the ruling Baath Party in 1980, and when Iraq invaded Iran that year, he was assigned to Project 922 — the secret development and production of poison gases.

"If I say no, they will ship me to the front and I will disappear," Saeed said in an effort to explain his participation in the project.

His work took place at the Muthana State Establishment, a huge complex of production plants, research laboratories, bunkers and other facilities built on desolate grazing land about 50 miles northwest of Baghdad.

Over the next decade, according to U.N. reports, Muthana would produce thousands of tons of some of the deadliest chemical weapons known, including such toxic nerve agents as VX, tabun, sarin and cyclosarin, as well as mustard blister gas. They were loaded in bombs, artillery shells, rockets and missile warheads and used against Iran.

In 1988, after a three-year break studying in Britain, Saeed was named head of quality control at Muthana. He supervised the continued production of a witch's brew of lethal gases, although U.N. inspectors say the exact amounts — especially of VX, one of the most horrific agents — is still unclear.

Saeed said Hussein ordered Muthana emptied before the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Chemical munitions and other material were dispersed to airfields and military bases across Iraq.

"We would just obey the order," he recalled. "Take 100 munitions to this air base, take 200 to that one." None were used in the war, however, and Muthana was heavily bombed by allied forces.

After the 1991 war, Saeed was quickly assigned to the U.N. teams as Iraq's liaison for chemical weapons. He ultimately became deputy chief of the "minders" attached to the inspectors.

He wrote all three of Iraq's "accurate, final and complete" chemical weapons declarations to the U.N. Security Council, including a 2,000-page portion of the 12,000-page document handed in last December. Like its predecessors, that report was quickly denounced as inaccurate and incomplete by both U.S. and U.N. officials.

But Saeed confirmed part of what Bush administration officials asserted after U.N. inspectors returned to Iraq last winter. He said he and other scientists were under strict orders to bring "a friend" and a tape recorder to any U.N. interviews. Regime officials had insisted the scientists were under no such pressure.

Saeed also explained why neither he nor any other scientist ever agreed to be interviewed outside Iraq, despite U.N. offers of safety. "We were told our families would be killed if we left the country," he said.

Steven Black, who served with the U.N. inspection teams from 1992 to 1999, said Saeed "wouldn't necessarily know about covert things" outside his control. "There was a group over the minders who didn't necessarily tell them what was going on," he said.

Moreover, Black said Saeed and his colleagues were grilled hundreds of times by U.N. inspectors.

"I know he lied to us, and he may be lying to you," he said. "This isn't some bank robber who's been hauled in. These guys have gone through this time and time again. They are very comfortable with this line of questioning."

Despite the ouster of Hussein's regime, Black said, senior Iraqis still have reasons to lie.

"Some of these guys did really bad things in the past and they don't want to own up to it," he said. "Or they're not convinced that Saddam is gone, and they know that when the U.S. goes, whoever talked will get dipped in an acid bath."

Like many Iraqis, Saeed is convinced Hussein is still alive. His hands still tremble when he describes how Hussein's security agents suddenly appeared at his office in late 1997. They ordered him into a car with shades drawn and took him to an unknown location. The dictator was waiting inside.

"He thanked me for my work," he recalled. His voice dropped. "But I am still shaking."

Times staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times

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